“A mutiny of the battalion had been arranged through negotiations between four Ukrainian officers and… a taciturn resistance operative.”
By Matt Rohde
ON THE LAST Sunday of August 1944, the Second World War delivered to remote eastern France one of its unceasing displays of the bizarre.
Under a scorching mid-afternoon sun high-spirited peasants strode in triumph alongside almost 800 soldiers dressed in the despised German feldgrau uniforms. At the front of the column was the mayor of a nearby village, directing officers along a series of paths and unpaved roads toward a well-hidden forest area where food and other supplies would be waiting.
When the day had begun, the soldiers had been a battalion of Ukrainian conscripts belonging to a recently-created Waffen-SS Division of “foreigners” that also included battalions of Russians, Armenians, Tatars, and Belarusians.
Where the Ukrainian soldiers had come from, there had been no luxury of facing but a singular evil, and no apparent side of rightness. They had arrived in France with a firmly ambiguous perspective as to which side of the Ostfront was the correct one to submit to, the only offerings from each consisting of servitude and a short brutish existence likely to end with a violent death.
A mutiny of the battalion had been arranged through negotiations between four Ukrainian officers and Simon Doillon, a taciturn resistance operative who owned a local dairy. Doillon had insisted that the Ukrainians could not just switch sides and then join the partisan forces. If the local maquis were to provide assistance and shelter, several specific conditions had to be met. First, the French insurgents would not participate in the mutiny.
Third and most notable, the German command force had to be “liquidated,” and no prisoners taken. Agreement was reached early on, but each day of the previous week had brought its own off again-on again drama.
Earlier that morning the Ukrainian battalion, along with its German overseers of regular soldiers and SS officers, had stepped off on an eastward march. The pace along the asphalt road had been slow. But even with so many men and so much equipment of war being pulled by sweating and blowing horses, the march had a quiet tranquility, interrupted only by cries of birds and the occasional shout in German attempting to move things ahead at a faster rate.
By mid-morning the heat of the day was making itself known. On horseback near the front of the convoy was the senior Ukrainian officer, Major Lev Holba, reflecting on the upcoming moment. Would the Ukrainian soldiers follow their Ukrainian officers? Would they have the courage to raise their arms against the Germans?
It was time. Hloba nodded to an assistant and a flare whistled upward, etching an arc of green fire and smoke against the crystalline blue sky. Only a handful of Ukrainian officers and even fewer soldiers knew what the signal meant.
In the column immediately behind Hloba, someone barked out an order in Ukrainian.
“V dya-haj-te sho-lo-my!” or “Helmets in place!”
The Ukrainians in the section followed the command as a matter of rote, putting their helmets on. On a horse next to the lieutenant who had given the order rode a German officer, Obersturmführer Bentz. He had not understood the words, but seeing the response of the soldiers he, too, started to put on his helmet.
The Ukrainian lieutenant turned on the Nazi officer, raised his gun, and emptied the contents of its magazine into Bentz’s head. The German tumbled off his horse, onto the sunbaked asphalt road.
The other Ukrainians in the section took his example and began firing on the Germans next to them.
The mutiny was on.
A savage melee began to advance down the length of the column, a wild storm of hand-to-hand combat to the death. The final killing blows were often delivered by the butt of a rifle to the head.
A Homeric telling of the scene would have had the gods overhead spellbound as they looked down upon such vicious fury — all the combatants wearing the same uniform as they fought on a narrow battlefield the width of a road.
It was over in less than an hour.
A two-mile stretch of road was left littered with hundreds of German bodies, including 25 SS officers. The jaws and necks of most of the dead were at unnatural angles.
One Ukrainian had been killed and six were wounded, of whom two would later die.
That evening the Ukrainian battalion was ceremoniously welcomed into the FFI, and would forever be known to the locals as le BUK.
In the coming weeks as the Allied forces approached from the west and south, elements of le BUK would conduct a number of French-directed missions, attracting the attention of the American OSS, the British SOE, and the Soviet NKVD before engaging in a final showdown with the Wehrmacht.
Matt Rohde is the author of the recent book When Eternities Met — A True Story of Terror, Mutiny, Loss, and Love in a Disremembered Second World War. His writings have appeared in the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun and other publications. He is a former U.S. government trade official.